Open Office Woes
April 15, 2019 5:59 PM   Subscribe

I've spent my entire career (admittedly a 4 1/2 year career) working in open plan offices and it's never really been an issue until now, but we've just moved to a new area and we get the coffee machine gossip, the personal phone calls, the "let's sit somewhere an collaborate" talking, on and on and on. I would like suggestions for noise-blocking devices that are comfortable over the course of a the workday. Or other suggestions to make my desk location less annoying.

I understand that noise-cancelling headphones are not particularly effective against people talking and that most of the benefit against voices is coming from the isolation, rather than the noise-cancelling. I have this fashionable set of hearing protection, which is reasonably effective, but kind of squeezes my head to an uncomfortable degree.

I know there are earplug headphones which are quite likely what I'm looking for, but I'm reluctant to spend the money on something without a replaceable cable.
posted by hoyland to Work & Money (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In ear foam Earplugs + headphones is effective for me. It'll make talking to passers-by more difficult but we also have a culture at our office of don't bother people with headphones on.
posted by Karaage at 6:20 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you have a coworker with good, recent generation noise cancelling headphones you could take for a spin? I ask because I tried out my desk neighbour's Bose QC35s the other day and was pleasantly surprised at how good they were compared with previous gen tech. Very lightweight and comfortable, too.
posted by btfreek at 6:21 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Have you brought this up with your manager or with HR? I'm sure you're not the only one with an issue.

We also just moved into a new office and after a chattery month in the space decided to move on a white noise system for the entire office to mitigate the noise.

You won't get anything you don't ask for. Doesn't hurt to see if there are bigger options available (white noise, acoustic foam, fabric panels) that can be investigated.

(And if you just moved into a new-new space, the lease may have come with a TI budget and your company could get part of the cost reimbursed by the property manager.)
posted by phunniemee at 6:24 PM on April 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Coffitivity over headphones would be perfect for this.
posted by MonsieurBon at 6:43 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would look for more comfortable headphones. The Bose ones are notoriously comfortable. Even the ones without active noise cancelling are good for isolation. There are plenty of other headphones that can be worn comfortably for long periods of time, though, if you don't care for Bose. I have a pair of the AudioTechnica ATH-SR5BT cans myself and like them.
posted by kindall at 6:52 PM on April 15, 2019

I would echo the sentiment that the most recent generation of noise-cancelling technology is surprisingly good. I have a pair of Sony WH1000XM3 headphones and the noise cancelling tech is capable of completely muting the sound of my own typing while at my desk. While they don't completely cancel out human speech, they attenuate it to the point where you have to really pay attention to understand it and I can't even tell that somebody is speaking if I'm listening to music at low volume.
posted by strangecargo at 7:04 PM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would echo the sentiment that the most recent generation of noise-cancelling technology is surprisingly good. I have a pair of Sony WH1000XM3 headphones and the noise cancelling tech is capable of completely muting the sound of my own typing while at my desk.

I just want to echo that these cans are MAGIC. I bought a pair on sale because I was going to be travelling a lot, and OMG they are amazing. Pair them with your phone, and you can have a conversation in the noisiest environments without shouting - the external mic uses the vibrations from your own head to know what noise to cancel.

They are crazy good.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:24 PM on April 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thirding Sony WH1000XM (mine are XM2). Just put mine on to block the snoring going on right over there. Talking comes through, but as a gentle murmur. And comfy.
posted by evilmomlady at 7:40 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have the latest Bose 35s and I love them. If the noise cancelling doesn’t work 100%, I throw on some white noise like rainfall and I’m elsewhere, I swear.

I work in an open office every day, and I am extremely noise-sensitive.
posted by greermahoney at 7:51 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that noise cancelling doesn't work well on talking.

I got these Howard Leight by Honeywell SYNC earmuffs about a year ago, and they're great. Audio quality is fine if I need to add white noise or listen to computer audio, can detach cord if I don't need it. One reviewer I read put a bluetooth dongle on to have cordless audio. At my last job, I was seated near the guy you could hear talking from all over the building, and they saved my sanity.
posted by momus_window at 8:14 PM on April 15, 2019

I have a pair of Bose QC25s (basically the wired version of the QC35 that's around $170 cheaper) that I use at the office and I find them very comfortable. The noise cancelling is very good; while it won't block out conversation completely, it significantly reduces what sound makes it through to the point that it's generally easier for me to ignore. It probably also helps that I listen to music with them as well, so there's something to help mask the sounds.
posted by Aleyn at 9:46 PM on April 15, 2019

Response by poster: I got these Howard Leight by Honeywell SYNC earmuffs about a year ago, and they're great.

This is what I have and, I agree, they're great, except I find they squeeze my head to a degree that becomes uncomfortable. Did you have this problem? I think it's actually due to my glasses. It turns out you can get replacement ear cushions to address this problems, but they cost more than I paid in the first place (and it's not 100% clear to me that they'd work with glasses without a bend in the arm, i.e. regular glasses not sunglasses or safety glasses).
posted by hoyland at 3:04 AM on April 16, 2019

Can you use a white or pink noise machine? Other people in the office might appreciate it too. Not great though if the people who are distracting you are, like, at the next desk, as they will likely talk louder. But if you’re at a pod of desks with others who need to focus white noise could help.
posted by mskyle at 3:54 AM on April 16, 2019

My free, quick and dirty solution to this is a white noise generator with a "speech blocker" setting. The default setting is good but you can tune it to taste. When I fiddle with the frequencies, it blocks out almost all the chatter around me.
posted by Gordafarin at 4:21 AM on April 16, 2019

I have regular earplugs for days the noise is particularly bad. I also have a cheap pair of earbuds that work as long as music is playing in them. I am sure they were under 20 dollars. I would try any earbuds with more than one size of replaceable tips and you can buy extra tips. I have a huge pair or over the ear headphones that I use on planes and there is no squeezing. If you go into a store with headphones on display, you can try them on before buying.

the "let's sit somewhere an collaborate" talking
Most of the other things you listed are normal work noises, but a real meeting like this is not for the open floor. Feel free to ask them to move to a conference room. If that does not work, push for a policy change that meetings that last longer than 5 minutes need to be in a room and not on the floor.
posted by soelo at 4:56 AM on April 16, 2019

I share a ~400ft^2 office with nine other people (yay, academia) and the answer for everyone is headphones. I've got Sony MDR-V6 headphones, which aren't noise-canceling but make it so that it's hard to notice much around me.

Other officemates use noise-cancelling headphones. I don't think anyone here uses ear defenders, but Dr Bored for Science did in grad school, and they worked well for her. They're much cheaper than good headphones.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 5:58 AM on April 16, 2019

Sorry, missed the link. I think my SYNCs have loosened up a bit with use, but yeah, I think the squeezing is part of why they work so well and it seems like glasses would be a problem for both effectiveness and comfort for any ear-covering solution. Pince-nez?

I also have a pair of Etymotic earplugs (older version of this, I think) that I used to use in the office but they were uncomfortable to wear for very long and didn't block as much sound. They also aren't very noticeable, which is a con at work. I looked into getting custom-fit plugs at an audiologist but it was expensive and there wasn't an appropriate one nearby - maybe that path will work for you? They come in colors and there are options for fitting earbud-type-things in them, not sure if the earbuds can be replaced.
posted by momus_window at 10:55 AM on April 16, 2019

I use noise-cancelling headphones while listening to a combination of the "cafe restaurant" noise generator and music without vocals (currently it's this 10-hour version of "Weightless" by Marconi Union).
posted by Lexica at 11:20 AM on April 16, 2019

I have some varia y of the Bose quiet comfort and I normally find that over ear headphones pinch my head and give me a headache. These do not and they block noise and joking around and collaboration in my open plan office where folks are constantly on multiple conference calls. The biggest problem is being surprised by folks behind me trying to get my attention.
posted by sockymcpuppeterson at 6:03 AM on April 17, 2019

With audio headphones the term of art is "clamping force", usually only mentioned in reviews when it's high enough to be uncomfortable, but sometimes positively mentioned in the context of "light clamping force." I'm not sure how well passive isolation would work with a light enough clamping force to be comfortable for extended periods, though. And when I bought my current cans I spent a couple weeks stretching out the band every time I picked them up just to reduce the clamping force a bit more.

I don't like active noise cancelation (I find it fatiguing) and I get sweaty and itchy if I wear my closed back cans for too long, but I found that a pair of over the ear headphones with semi-open backs could be comfortable for all-day wear and provide just enough muting to keep my concentration on my own work. Also even people who are oblivious or shameless about how loud they are in open plan offices are effectively chastened if you have to take your oversized headphones off to say "can you keep it down? I can hear you over these." And big cans signal "I'm concentrating" to people who might otherwise interrupt you six to ten times an hour. Not that I counted.

My headphones are Beyerdynamic DT-880s, which have a really good (and earned) reputation for comfort, but if you're thinking of getting a nice pair of cans you should match the design and audio characteristics to your own comfort and preferences. I'm a "neutral studio monitor" sort of guy, not a "pump up the bass" guy, so the DT-880s and my older (sweatier) AKGs suit that bill. Your tastes may vary.
posted by fedward at 6:35 PM on April 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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